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Albano to keep up low-cost drug pitch

SPRINGFIELD -- He's getting a change of scenery and a new office, but Michael Albano plans to continue the crusade for cheaper prescription drugs he began as mayor of Springfield.

Albano hopes to capitalize on the recognition he gained over the past six months, when Springfield grabbed national headlines by becoming the first city in the country to buy cheaper prescription drugs from Canada for its employees.

He's already set up a new office just a few blocks from City Hall. His new business cards identify him as president of Michael Albano and Associates. When his mayoral term expires at 10 a.m. Monday, as Charles Ryan is sworn in for the city's top job, Albano will launch a new career as a public affairs consultant.

"I went from being a lame-duck mayor to a dead-duck mayor to someone who has built up a lot of momentum for this issue," said Albano, who decided last year not to seek reelection to a fifth term as mayor of the state's third-largest city.

While Albano plans to help politicians with campaign strategies and policy decisions, his main focus is to pick up where he left off as mayor: getting cheaper medicine into the hands of the poor and elderly.

There are speaking engagements this month before lawmakers in Connecticut and California. Considering plans based on Springfield's are the governors of Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan, West Virginia, and Iowa.

Albano, 53, expects that more government leaders and activists will contact him after the broadcast of a recently taped interview he did with "60 Minutes."

He also expects frustration with the new Medicare reform bill, which he said doesn't go far enough with its prescription drug benefit.

"Everyone wants to know about what we've done in Springfield and how the program has worked," he said.

US Representative Richard Neal, Democrat of Massachusetts, a former Springfield mayor, and close friend of Albano, said "his advocacy will continue to be important."

"Whenever there is a hearing scheduled on prescription drug prices, I think he would be a very good witness," Neal said.

Albano also wants to establish a nonprofit group that will develop software to help eligible people get free medication offered by some drug companies.

He said he first heard about the program while skirmishing with the Food and Drug Administration over the agency's prohibition against buying drugs from foreign pharmacies, something Albano said has saved Springfield $1 million since July.

Albano said many people don't know about the program or don't bother applying, because the process is too complex.

Mark Grayson, a spokesman for the industry trade group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, said more than 6 million people in 2003 received free medicine from drug companies. He said the prescription assistance program is widely known and easy to access.

"Unfortunately, the mayor doesn't quite understand what he's doing," Grayson said. "If he really looked into the programs, he'd understand more. It's easier to get free medication from the drug companies than any kind of assistance from the state."

The FDA obtained a court order to shut down some Internet importers of prescription drugs, but took no regulatory action against the city of Springfield or its mayor.

In addition to what promises to be a continuation of his already contentious relationship with drug makers and federal regulators, Albano plans to parlay his three decades in public service into consulting work with politicians and business developers.

He doesn't expect any of the controversy surrounding a federal probe into suspected corruption in city government to dog him as he fades into the private sector.

Four members of a city job training agency, including a longtime friend Albano appointed to head the city's police commission, were named in a federal indictment alleging they created no-show jobs.

After he defeated a popular state representative running against him for mayor in 2001, federal investigators seized boxes of city records in a probe of allegations that some bar owners got favorable loans. No charges resulted, and Albano said he had no involvement in any wrongdoing.

"When all this started, I said we would cooperate fully, and we've done that," he said. "We have given investigators whatever they've asked for."

In 1998, some speculated that Albano would be tapped to run for lieutenant governor or run for Congress. But for now, at least, there are no plans to seek another elected office.

"I've had eight good years as mayor," Albano said. "I'd like to sit back for a while and not worry about the fund-raising and the politics. Being mayor was a dream and a goal achieved."

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